Japanese-American actor Pat Morita became a beloved pop culture figure with his turn as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid movies.
Born in 1932, Pat Morita battled spinal tuberculosis as a child. He and his family also spent part of World War II in a Japanese internment camp. Morita appeared on several TV series in the 1970s, including Sanford and Son and Happy Days. In 1984, Morita co-starred with Ralph Macchio in the hit film The Karate Kid and appeared in several sequels. He continued to work in film and television until his death in 2005.
Born in 1932 in Northern California, actor Noriyuki "Pat" Morita faced many challenges during his childhood. He contracted spinal tuberculosis around the age of two. Morita spent nine years at a sanitarium, battling for his life. After being released from the sanitarium, he rejoined his family, but the reunion proved to be difficult. Morita told the Los Angeles Times that he "cried for four days I was so homesick for the doctors and nurses."
Morita and his family were soon moved by the U.S. government to an internment camp in Arizona—a fate suffered by many Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. The Morita family moved to Fairfield, California, after the war. He helped out at the family's Chinese restaurant in Sacramento for a time. After high school, he spent time as a migrant farm worker and later landed a job with an aerospace firm.
Around the time he was thirty, Morita abandoned his corporate career for comedy. He struggled for many years as a stand-up comic. Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce's mother, acted as his agent and manager in his early days. Morita sometimes worked as the opening act for singers Vic Damone and Connie Stevens and comedian Redd Foxx. Foxx later gave him a role on his sitcom Sanford and Sons in the early 1970s.
Morita joined the cast of the 1950s sitcom Happy Days, starring Ron Howard and Henry Winkler, in 1975. He left the series after the first season to star in the short-lived comedy Mr. T and Tina, one of the first television shows to have an Asian American lead character. In 1982, Morita returned to Happy Days for its final season.
In 1984, Morita saw his career reach new heights with his role in The Karate Kid. He played Kesuke Miyagi, a maintenance worker in an apartment building who befriends a young tenant named Daniel (Ralph Macchio). After Daniel is targeted by bullies, Mr. Miyagi becomes his sensei, or teacher, in martial arts. The film was both a commercial and critical success with Morita earning his one and only Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the kindly yet quirky Mr. Miyagi.
The Karate Kid was such a big hit that it spawned several sequels. Once again, Morita tried for success on the small screen in 1987 with the police drama Ohara. The show lasted for two seasons. In 1994, Morita returned The Karate Kid film series. This time around, Mr. Miyagi takes on a new pupil played by Hilary Swank in The Next Karate Kid. This new venture failed to recapture the magic of the first Karate Kid film.
Morita returned to playing small parts and supporting roles on television and film in his later career. From 1996 to 1998, he played the grandfather of the title character in The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. Morita also gave voice to the Chinese emperor in the animated Disney film Mulan (1998). He made guest appearances on such shows as The Hughleys and Baywatch.
In 2003, Morita played the quintessential fussy clean-freak Felix Unger in a touring production of Neil Simon's comedic play The Odd Couple. He largely faded from the spotlight toward the end of his life, appearing in a few little-seen films. On November 24, 2005, Morita died of natural causes in Las Vegas, Nevada. He left behind his third wife Evelyn and three daughters from his first two marriages.